The 10% Rule for Paper

In my last post, I described the 10% Rule for clearing an email backlog.

For paper, the process is a bit different, mostly because it’s harder to see what’s there and to pull things from the middle, but also because there’s more walking around when dealing with physical items.

First, I divide it into 3-inch sections with coloured paper. Then I measure the height of the pile in inches and calculate 10%. Yes, inches, not estimated time. Next I triage each section, one at a time. The small sections keep the triage from being overwhelming. The goal is triaging, so no 2-minute rule.

After a month off, I find triaging twice a week, with 1-week look-ahead is reasonable. If I notice that everything in a section can wait an entire month, I’ll label that section “triage not necessary until July”.

If the urgent items are done today, they count towards today’s inches. If they’re not done, then they don’t count. They’re still backlogged, and are part of that measurement. (If they were important enough to pull out, why didn’t I do them today?)

Most of the time, I take the oldest paper and deal with it. It’s usually a surprise, which keeps the job interesting. Every so often I hit a coloured paper, which is rewarding.

If, from previous passes, I know several papers can be dealt with as a batch, or that are part of the same project, I might pull those as I triage. They stay in the backlog measurement, though, until they’re done — just like the urgent items that weren’t so urgent. I only group things that make a lot of sense grouped. Most of my paper is either filing (either permanent or part of a much larger project where I can honestly count putting it with similar papers as done) or one-offs that don’t benefit from batching.

Usually, Papers stay in order of arrival, or at least between the same coloured papers. Things that are related usually arrive together, so there’s a bit of organization there. Also, it lets me say, “I’ve dealt with everything that arrived before June 1.”

I’m using this on the current post-vacation backlog. I’m also using it on two other backlogs, which started as vacation backlogs but then got added to (oops), then finally triaged and set aside for later. I have a few other backlogs (projects that got out of hand, and files that need purging), but those three plus current email, plus my 2008 email archives, are enough on my plate.


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